Teaching an old dog new tricks: Neuroscience research at IU combines centuries-old methods with modern technology

This post is the second installment in a two part series. Check out last week’s post here.

Thanks to modern technology, the field of cellular neuroscience has become illuminated with brightly colored images – tissue samples, cells, and individual molecules have been stained, photographed, colorized, and even reconstructed in three dimensions. A Google Image search quickly provides thousands of examples, and a walk through the research wing in IU’s Multidisciplinary Sciences Building II is no different. The images that IU neuroscientists have collected are proudly displayed on posters and signs that line the hallways.

However, the field of neuroscience hasn’t always been so bright. Before the late 1800s, scientists could look at samples of brain tissue through the lens of a microscope, but there was no way to pick out individual brain cells, or neurons, from the background–the detailed structure of individual neurons was essentially invisible. That all changed when Camillo Golgi, an Italian biologist, developed a technique that he called “the black reaction.” He found a way to stain entire neurons black against a brown background. For the first time, neuroscientists were able to see individual neurons. His technique, now called Golgi histology, was quickly adopted by Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who created the first maps of how neurons are organized in the brain. (more…)

Feeling stressed? Researchers at IU are studying how stress reshapes the brain

This post is part 1 of a two part series. Check out part 2 here.

An illustration of the brain surrounded by a pattern of multicolored squares

Imagine it’s 9:45 am. You have a meeting across town in 15 minutes and you just realized that you overslept your alarm! You throw on some clothes, grab a cup of yesterday’s coffee, and rush out the door, only to realize that your car has a flat tire…

Feeling stressed? Anyone who has experienced a situation like that knows what stress feels like. But, while stressful experiences aren’t pleasant, we typically find ways to deal with them. We solve whatever issues that have come up, find ways to relax, and move on. But what happens when severely stressful circumstances hit? Or when stressful experiences are unrelenting? (more…)

For a hybrid species of ribbon worm, it only takes one to tango

Along the eastern Atlantic coasts of France, at some point in the last 100,000 years, two ribbon worms of different species engaged in worm intercourse (do not fear, I will not discuss the mechanics here). The two species were Lineus sanguineus and L. lacteus. Interspecies sex is uncommon in itself, but what’s especially surprising in this case is that their union gave rise to a new species: L. pseudolacteus.

Pink colored worm, with two small eyes visible at the head end of the animal (left end in the photo)
The ribbon worm Lineus sanguineus, mother species of L. pseudolacteus. Photo by Dr. Eduardo Zattara (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Several barriers to interspecies sex have long been documented. Often there are no offspring from these unions. Even when the species are closely related enough to give rise to a hybrid, most hybrids are infertile, like mules and hinnies, which are born when horses and donkeys are crossed. On the other hand, some hybrids can be fertile. For example, oranges, which are hybrids of pomelo and mandarin are often fertile. However, our main protagonist, the hybrid of L. sanguineus and L. lacteus, is infertile, yet it can reproduce… by a special kind of regeneration. (more…)

The Social Lives of Bacteria

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” —- Aristotle

This famous quote by Aristotle gets at the heart of what is considered the most human quality – being social. However, biologists have long known that ‘social behaviors’ are not the sole domain of human beings. Examples of cooperation, conflict, altruism and even spite have been known to exist across the animal kingdom. Popular examples include social hierarchies in groups of non-human primates, pheromone-based signaling for attracting mates, male-male competition for access to mates and many more. Are these exceptions? It turns out that social interactions are pervasive across the living world, and even the simplest living organisms – single-celled, microscopic bacteria – engage in a wide range of social behaviors! (more…)

On On the Origin of Species: An ode to scientist-writers

a stack of biology books, including On the Origin of Species
Origin of Species is the foundation for most other work in evolution

Sometimes, when we read about science in textbooks or newspaper articles, it can be easy to slip into thinking that after the scientists make their discovery, the writing is someone else’s job. Not so! In addition to being researchers and experimenters, scientists must also be writers if they wish to share their findings with the rest of the world. Before there were laminated cards with Newton’s laws of motion, Newton himself wrote Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and before there were textbooks about evolution, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. (more…)

Biological Venn Diagrams: Where do Math and Biology Intersect?

Think back to some of the core materials you learned from a biology course, either in college or high school. What do you remember? Maybe you remember something about human anatomy, or the carbon cycle, the structure of cells, or how DNA is replicated? But do you ever immediately think about how math and biology overlap? Mathematical tools and concepts are used by a large number of biological scientists, but the connection between math and biology isn’t always visible.

For example, in my work, I use statistics to test hypotheses about how species interact in nature, and I have used computer-programming tools to analyze genetic sequences from the microbial species I study as part of my research. But what kinds of tools do other biologists use? Below is a brief survey of IU biology professors who merge biology with math in a lot of surprising ways. How can we use computers to help solve the mysteries of fruit flies and use mathematical models to simulate chopping down a forest? Find out below! (more…)

Branching Out with Interdisciplinary Science

A theoretical chemist and a biochemist walk into a bar.  They both speak the same language, yet it’s difficult for them to have a conversation about each other’s research.  They’re both intelligent, educated scientists who have at least a basic understanding of the other’s field, so what’s the problem?

The first post from the ScIU blog asked the question: what is science really?  The answer: it’s broad and complicated, but science can roughly be separated into “basic” and “applied” sciences, and both encompass many disciplines, such as chemistry, astronomy, and psychology.

A illustration shows the words "biochemistry" and "theoretical chemistry" separated by walls, but arrows pointing from the words over the walls lead to "something new".
By catapulting over the walls of jargon which complicate scientific collaboration, exciting new ideas can be formed.

But even these disciplines themselves are quite broad.  For example, there are numerous subdivisions under the field of “chemistry”.  While some chemists specialize in creating novel molecules (synthetic chemists), others pursue challenges in biologically relevant chemistry (biochemists), and still others use computational models to study the fundamental forces that explain chemical interactions (theoretical chemists). There are many other sub-disciplines (which are disciplines in their own right) under the “chemistry” umbrella as well, each with their own particular ensemble of jargon.

Each of these disciplines brings a unique perspective to the broader scientific community, but it is sometimes challenging for one researcher to discuss the impact of their work with someone from a different discipline. Hence, the theoretical chemist and biochemist may have communication difficulties unless they carefully rephrase their language and avoid discipline-specific jargon.  Working to make their research accessible to a broader audience is one way in which communication between colleagues in different fields can also be improved.


Hands, tools, and words, oh my!

It is relatively easy to list things that make our species, Homo sapiens, unique. From modest biological traits like hairless bodies and walking on two feet, to amazing things like culture, technology, and language, it is quite clear that we became some pretty quirky animals over the course of our evolution. Exactly how and why our lineage became ‘human’ is a much more difficult matter to investigate, especially when we consider some of the more complex behaviors on our list.

A hand holding a triangular stone tool, which was made millions of years ago.
Caption: “Hand axe” by serious but unabashed is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Fuel for the Future: the Evolving Process of Making Hydrogen

Hydrogen gas (H2), which is currently used in world-wide production of ammonia, is also being considered as an alternative fuel. But how is hydrogen gas made? Carbon monoxide (CO) and water (H2O) can be combined to form hydrogen gas (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a process known as the water-gas shift reaction. The water-gas shift reaction is one of our primary sources of hydrogen. Several other processes of producing hydrogen exist and are being developed, such as electrolysis, direct solar water splitting, and microbial biomass conversion.

For efficient production of hydrogen using the water-gas shift reaction, a catalyst is necessary. A catalyst is a substance that will increase the rate of the reaction. For example, the catalytic converters in cars use platinum in order to catalyze the conversion of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. Scientists have developed catalysts for the water-gas shift reaction containing a range of metals such as iron, platinum, gold, copper, and nickel. More recently, (more…)

Harnessing the therapeutic benefits of marijuana: Research findings from Dr. Andrea Hohmann’s laboratory at Indiana University presented at international neuroscience conference

Text box that reads: "ScIU Current Events"Last week, over 32,000 neuroscientists met in San Diego for the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference. Joining them were members of IU’s Program in Neuroscience, including Dr. Andrea Hohmann, who is also a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts in Sciences and a Linda and Jack Gill Chair of Neuroscience in the Gill Center for Biomolecular Science.

Scientific conferences like SfN bring together scientists from all over the world to discuss their findings. Researchers attend SfN to discuss a wide variety of topics related to brain function and mental health. At the conference, Dr. Hohmann met not only with her colleagues, but also members of the press, who were interested in her lab’s research on the neurochemistry of pain. She described how the endocannabinoid system, a complex network of cells and receptors in the brain, is involved in pain perception and may be a useful target for pain relief drugs. The endocannabinoid system is currently a hot topic in neuroscience, partly because receptors in this system are targeted by THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and other synthetic marijuana-like compounds. When THC and other synthetic cannabinoids reach the brain, they act on cannabinoid receptors to elicit both psychoactive and pain-relieving effects. Marijuana is currently being considered for legalization in the US.

Image of the brain surrounded by marijuana leaves